Special Forces Opacity: Dangers for the U.K.

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When news first emerged that four American special operators and five Nigeriens had been killed in a deadly ambush on the 4th of October 2017, it catapulted the hitherto, little-known United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) presence in Niger into the limelight. Almost immediately, Senators were poring  back over the documents they had been briefed on concerning United States (U.S.) combat operations in the region. Many of them admitted they had not been aware of the scale or nature of the US presence in Niger. Some commentators suggested they should have been paying more attention. Lora Lumpe and Jacob Marx of the Open Society Foundation stated, “Either the Pentagon has not been informing Congress, or it is sending updates...but nobody is reading them.”

A United States Marine adviser speaks with the leaders of an African special forces unit during a training exercise. (Master Sgt. Jeremiah Erickson/U.S. Air Force Photo)

The release of a public incident report is imminent, which will see the Trump administration and USAFRICOM asked to account for the decisions made in the run-up to the operation, as well as broader special forces operations in West Africa. The report may also contain lessons for British troops and commanders. The United Kingdom (U.K.), alongside the U.S., has been increasingly relying on its special forces to provide boots, eyes, and ears on the ground against groups such as the Islamic Statis in Iraq and Syria, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram.

However, as U.S. decision-makers assess—and, importantly, learn from—the mistakes of the past, it is worth reflecting on the fact that the rigid no-comment policy that surrounds Britain’s own use of special forces means that similar learning processes are impossible on this side of the Atlantic. Contrary to practice in the U.S., parliamentarians are not briefed on the activities of the U.K.’s special forces or the broader strategy for their use as part of British defence and security policy.


The stock response to any question about British special forces is that “the MOD’s [the Ministry of Defence] long-held policy is not to comment on special forces.” Former chair of the U.K. Foreign Affairs Select Committee Crispin Blunt noted that while this makes sense for sharply in, and sharply out activities, where special forces are deployed on one specific mission, such as a strike against a key individual, and could be imperiled by operational disclosures. However, Blunt argues that “if [operations] are part of a strategy you would expect that strategy to be overseen.”

As in the U.S., the role of U.K. special forces is far broader than sharply in, and sharply out activities, and the post-9/11 environment has seen them deployed across the world to counter threats to the U.K. Not only does this require special forces to be deployed for much longer periods of time, but—in some areas of the world—a reluctance to deploy regular troops after the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan means that special forces can be the only British boots on the ground.

In light of this, at a House of Commons Defence Committee hearing the Chair of the Defence Committee, Members of Parliament Julian Lewis asked Sir Michael Fallon, then-U.K. Secretary of State for Defence, whether it would be sensible for Parliament to fill “what is apparently a scrutiny gap over the activities of U.K. special forces.” As Lewis noted, the U.K. is increasingly isolated in its rigid ‘no comment’ policy in comparison with, for example, the U.S., who, as was seen above, appear to recognise the advantages that opening up their special forces deployments to greater scrutiny presents. Unfortunately, Fallon responded: “We simply don’t comment on special forces activities.


U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis (Reuters)

In response to criticisms of the deadly ambush, which took place near the Nigerien village of Tongo Tongo, the Trump administration began an inquiry into the attack. While the incident report has not yet been released, there have already been a number of statements and leaks indicating some of its findings. U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, said, “[The Department of Defense] is looking at all aspects, not just to this specific incident but to the broader circumstances surrounding that incident, so you get a holistic view.” It also appears that the report has been relatively frank about the mistakes that were made. The New York Times claims that the report “describes a string of errors and bad decision-making” and will call for “the Pentagon to scale back the number of ground missions in West Africa, and to strip commanders in the field of some authority to send troops on potentially high-risk patrols.”

The Trump administration has faced a lot of criticism in the wake of the ambush—not least because of his very public argument with the widow of one of the soldiers killed on the operation. Many link Trump’s efforts “to loosen Obama-era restrictions and give the military more decision-making authority to move faster on raids, airstrikes and bombing missions” with the mistakes made. However, once again, the mechanisms which allow U.S. policy-makers to ask important strategic questions about military engagement abroad should provide food for thought for the U.K., whose no-comment policy over the deployment of special forces undermines the ability to have this same level of debate.


The U.S. is not an isolated case. In November 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a press conference in which he discussed increasing Canada’s contingent of special forces in Iraq, where it has been confirmed that they are operating under a mandate that allows them to accompany Kurdish forces up to and across front lines, and into battle.

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and former President Barack Obama in 2014 (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In the same month, then-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that 200 special forces members had been cleared to deploy to Iraq, to advise and assist local security forces in the fight against the Islamic State. In April 2016, the Australian Defence Inspector General announced the beginning of an investigation into the internal culture of the special forces following a period of high-intensity deployments in the post-9/11 period.

French officials have traditionally echoed their British counterparts and insisted that “we never go into details about anything to do with special forces.” However, this is starting to change. For example, in December 2017 the head of the French special forces approached  the Assemblée Nationale to speak in depth about their resourcing, recruitment, and recent operations. He responded to questions about equipment, overstretch, and the evolving strategy of France’s enemies.

While not every deployment of special forces is announced by Britain’s allies, there is nevertheless the expectation that the public should be kept as informed as possible, and that debate on special forces activities abroad should not be unreasonably restricted. This does not appear to be impeding their operational effectiveness—the U.S. and France in particular continue to use their special forces to great effect. Instead, it provides their legislatures and wider publics with an important opportunity to question government strategy and debate the implications of their involvement in conflicts overseas.


The Niger incident demonstrates that even elite and special operators are not immune to making mistakes. It also looks likely that the incident report will highlight shortfalls in strategic decision-making. This demonstrates the importance of reviewing past mistakes in a way that maintains operational security but allows for key lessons to be learned.

In 2016, the U.K. Foreign Affairs Committee warned that the lack of such system in the U.K. “increases the danger that [special forces] operations can become detached from political objectives.” There is also a risk that government expectations of secrecy become detached from the realities of the world in which its special forces operate, to the detriment of their effectiveness.

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron (Tom Evans/Wikimedia)

As the U.K.’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review stated, “The growth of communications technology will increase our enemies’ ability to influence, not only all those on the battlefield, but also our own society directly. We must therefore win the battle for information, as well as the battle on the ground.” The British government’s unwillingness to engage in debates around its deployment of special forces is increasingly unhelpful in an era of smartphones  and growing access to the internet across the globe. This effectively surrenders the narrative about where and why U.K. forces are deployed to those posting their pictures online. For example, in 2015 former Prime Minister David Cameron promised Parliament that the U.K. would not deploy ground troops to Syria. However, in June 2016 reports began to emerge that U.K. special forces were on the front lines of the fight against the Islamic State.

Minimizing the disclosure of these operations may also serve to exacerbate constraints on military action, especially in a climate of risk aversion and skepticism over entanglements abroad. One major scandal could result in huge restrictions being placed on U.K. military intervention, as could a steady drip of media information that raises suspicions and fuels accusations of government deception.


The U.K. government should look closely at the Niger incident report. The U.S. looks set to engage in a frank discussion about what went wrong, and more generally raise a number of concerns about the deployment of U.S. special forces to West Africa. It is indicative of a recognition within the U.S., as among many of the U.K.’s allies, that greater openness is not inherently incompatible with the operational security or utility of special forces. Instead, it is seen as a learning opportunity, and a vital mechanism for improving overall strategy. As the U.S. Senate debates the Niger incident and the lessons for future deployments, the U.K. government should consider its own options. Its no-comment policy is not risk free and presents a number of dangers to the effectiveness of U.K. military engagement abroad. The U.S. made mistakes that led to the Niger incident, but looks set to learn lessons in its aftermath—the U.K. must ensure it can do the same.

Abigail Watson is a research officer at the Oxford Research Group’s Remote Warfare Programme. She researches and presents on the military, legal, and political implications of light-footprint warfare. She can be found on Twitter at @remote_warfare.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

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